Generations of distrust between the U.S. and Cuba could begin to fade away Saturday as their presidents are expected to officially meet face to face for the first time since the height of the Cold War. The historic gathering offers Barack Obama and Raul Castro the chance to infuse fresh momentum into their efforts to restore normal relations between their countries.
Anticipation of an Obama-Castro meeting has been steadily building throughout this week's Summit of the Americas in Panama City, and reached a fever pitch Friday evening when they traded handshakes and cordial greetings in a prelude of things to come. Not once in more than 50 years have the leaders of Cuba and its northerly neighbor spent quality time together, assuring their expected sit-down on Saturday would be one for the history books.
Raising the stakes even further for the two leaders was mounting speculation that Obama would use the occasion to announce his decision to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, a gesture Cuba has eagerly sought for both practical and symbolic reasons. The U.S. long ago stopped accusing Cuba of conducting terrorism, and Obama has signaled he's ready to take Cuba off the list. On Thursday, he suggested an announcement was imminent when he revealed that the State Department's lengthy review of the designation is finally complete.
Mending ties with the longtime U.S. foe could form a cornerstone of Obama's foreign policy legacy. Latin America represents a rare bright spot for Obama, whose efforts to improve U.S. standing elsewhere in the world have met often-intractable obstacles.
"As the United States begins a new chapter in our relationship with Cuba, we hope it will create an environment that improves the lives of the Cuban people," Obama told a gathering of civil society groups on Friday, casting the move to end hostile relations as a triumph for Cubans that would empower them to chart their own path to prosperity.
Although no meeting was formally scheduled in advance, White House officials indicated that a substantive conversation between Obama and Castro was all but assured to take place Saturday, hours before Obama returns to Washington. In another sign that they were eager to talk, Obama and Castro spoke by phone on Wednesday before Obama left for the summit — only the second such phone call known to have occurred since the nations cut off relations half a century ago.
The first phone call came in December, shortly before Obama and Castro announced their intentions to restore full relations and reopen embassies in each other's capitals. Yet while they had hoped to open the embassies in time for the summit, progress on that front has been slow to materialize, prompting some doubts about whether the leaders would be able to overcome opposition at home and deliver on their goal.
Still, the friendly — if brief — encounter between Obama and Castro on Friday as they arrived for the summit's opening ceremonies provided powerful visual clues that the rapprochement had already come a long way. Although the lounge where the two crossed paths was off-limits to reporters, video and photos of the two making small talk and nodding attentively at one another quickly found its way onto the Internet.
The White House said the interaction was informal and that the presidents didn't engage in substantive conversation. Likewise, Obama's aides were coy about how long it would take the president to act on removing Cuba from the infamous terror list, although the pace of activity suggested that even if an announcement didn't come Saturday, one would come soon.
Removal is a top issue for Castro because it would not only eliminate Cuba's status as a pariah, but also ease Cuba's ability to conduct simple financial transactions. Yet Obama's delay in delisting Cuba comes as the U.S. seeks concessions of its own — namely, the easing of restrictions placed on American diplomats' freedom of movement in Havana and better protections for human rights.
To that end, Obama made a point during his Panama trip to meet with about 15 Latin American activists, including two Cubans who have challenged Castro's government. A large contingent of pro-Castro Cubans who were supposed to participate in a larger civil society forum left shortly before Obama spoke to protest the inclusion of Cuban dissidents.
Obama's and Castro's efforts to pursue better relations were already drawing praise from the leadership of the Western Hemisphere gathered around them at the summit.
Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela said Obama was leaving a legacy of supporting Hispanics both in the U.S. and abroad, and Latin heads of state applauded on multiple occasions on Friday when the detente was mentioned in summit sessions.
Yet both Obama and Castro must contend with hardline constituents at home for whom distrust still runs deep. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is among Republicans considering a 2016 presidential bid, decried the expected Obama-Castro meeting and called the Cuban leader an "entrenched dictator."
"President Obama is truly writing new chapters in American foreign policy," Graham said. "Unfortunately, these latest chapters are ones of America and the values we stand for — human rights, freedom, and democracy — in retreat and decline."
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